Continental Congress (Part two)

Concluding our examination of the 1961 Lincoln Continental’s domestic design influence. 



The first major change for the Continental: to silence criticism of its comparatively somewhat stingy rear legroom once and for all, the wheelbase was increased by three inches (from 123 to 126 inches).

The overall appearance of the Continental was unchanged however. Other alterations were a slightly altered roofline/DLO and the replacement of the previously curved side glass with flat glazing. This was a cost-cutting decision which was not universally liked by the press as it was seen as a step backward. The buying public obviously could live with it because sales increased by 20% over the previous year.

At Cadillac, the fins were lowered once more but otherwise the facelift was quite minor. No minor change at Imperial however: Chrysler had paid Lincoln the ultimate compliment almost two years earlier, luring Elwood Engel, the designer mainly credited with the 1961 Continental, away from Lincoln to replace Virgil Exner. Engel came too late to have much influence on the 1963 Imperial but with the 1964 he produced a design that very much showed his hand.

To some, the new Imperial even looked a little too Lincoln-like. In one way, it could be argued the Imperial was more Continental than the Continental itself – witness the hump in the luggage compartment lid. Alas, in other aspects this Imperial never approached the balance and cleanliness of line the Lincoln so obviously displayed, even though it borrowed several styling cues from it. Also, even though the car looked very different from its predecessor, it utilized a lot of its internal hardware including the cowl and windshield.

Therefore the Imperial would be saddled with a panoramic windshield until 1966 – a styling feature which had fallen out of favour with the buying public at the beginning of the decade. Imperial did have a good year by its standards though: an increase of about 60% (from 14,121 to 23,295 cars) over the previous model year. So did Lincoln (36,297 cars), but Cadillac’s lead remained discouragingly unassailable: 165,909 rolled off the assembly lines.


Curbside classics/Pinterest/My classic garage

The Continental underwent its first really obvious styling change; the hood which was previously flat now displayed the first step towards the ‘tombstone grille’ that would be found on future Continentals. Buyers responded favourably, giving Lincoln another increase in sales to 40,180 cars.

It seems the bloom came off the Imperial’s rose quickly as sales took a dive again this year to 18,409 cars. The 1965 car was barely distinguishable from the 1964 model but this was more due to budget constraints than marketing philosophy as was the case with Lincoln.

The 1965 Cadillac was all-new, and with its slab-sided styling, restrained use of decoration and only the slightest hint of a fin was more Lincoln-like than ever -at least in profile. As far as front-end styling was concerned the three luxury contenders were noticeably different in these years. There seemed to be no end to Cadillac’s triumphant run of ever higher sales, far out of reach of its competitors. 182,435 Cadillacs produced for 1965 paint a clear picture.


(C) My classic garage/Classic cars/Car from UK

This time it was Lincoln’s turn for major change. The 1966 car displayed all new but still recognisably Continental styling, with a subtle “coke-bottle” character line along its flanks perhaps a visible sign that the trendsetter of a few years before had in some ways become a trend follower.

Another far-reaching departure of previous years was this: A few years before, Lincoln had published an advertisement proudly showing the four door convertible and four door sedan with just the short text “This is the complete line” (which was technically not entirely true as there were also the hand-built Lehman-Peterson limousines).

Now a two-door coupe was added to the Continental range, which meant that all three luxury makes offered more or less the same bodystyle options. This parity would be short-lived however because after 1967 the four door convertible would be dropped, never to return.

The new styling and wider choice had a positive effect on Lincoln sales which increased to almost 55,000 cars, an increase of well over 30%. Imperial was on the last leg of its three-year bodystyling cycle; again the changes were minimal. Alas, the drop in the amount of cars sold was not- only 13,752 people placed an order.

The Cadillac received a minor facelift, and why mess with a good thing? At the end of the model year, a grand total of 196,685 had rolled of the assembly lines- reaffirming its status as (in sales at least) America’s number one luxury car.

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Looking at the cold figures, Cadillac was never in any real danger of losing its number one position, Imperial would prove to be a futile exercise and Lincoln had at least dug itself out of the sales and styling hole created by the 1958-60 cars and proven that a less is more approach to styling could work, even in 1960’s America.

Today, it is the Lincoln of that era which is seen as an enduring design classic. The Cadillacs of this timeframe also have plenty of fans but not necessarily for the cleanliness of their styling; Cadillac simply remains the best-loved American luxury car, and no amount of tastefully styled Continentals will ever change this. The Imperial is as good as forgotten, which is a bit undeserved because it was definitely not a bad car by any means.

Part of the problem was that Chrysler always seemed unsure as to how exactly to market Imperial. Sometimes it was the most luxurious version of the Chrysler, and in other years a separate nameplate. The result was that most prospective buyers viewed the car as a Chrysler Imperial and the harsh reality is that the Chrysler name simply has less gravitas in the luxury field than either Cadillac or Lincoln.

Nowadays the lead in sales numbers of Cadillac over Lincoln remains, although it is not as vast as it was in the sixties and seventies. Imperial was cancelled after the 1975 model year and has (after two unsuccessful and arguably unwise exhumations in 1981 and 1990) definitely been laid to rest in the automotive graveyard of deceased nameplates.

Lincoln Influence profile images 1960-63 / Lincoln Influence profile images 1964-66: Author’s collection.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

5 thoughts on “Continental Congress (Part two)”

  1. There was, it appears, a good deal of soul searching as to whether to continue with Lincoln after the failure of the 1958 model and some senior Ford executives advocated that they ought not. Following detailed analysis however, it was found that the earlier model had been insufficiently costed. When the 1961 car was finally greenlit (and it was touch and go apparently), efforts were made to ensure that there was a sufficiently robust business case. The result of this was that despite its slow start, the ’61 Continental (and the cars which followed) was believed to have been profitable from the off, despite expensive solutions like the rear-hinged coach doors.

    1. You are correct, Eoin. As far as I can deduct from my sources we have Robert mcNamara, the then general manager of Ford -and a succesful one: the only one Henry Ford II didn’t fire- to thank for the 1961 Lincoln. He viewed the 1961 Thunderbird proposal and suggested that it would make a nice Lincoln if stretched a bit and given four doors.
      Being based on a Thunderbird proposal was one of the reasons for the (comparatively) somewhat limited room in the rear. Also, the Continental and Thunderbird of 1961-1966 share some internal body hardware- the cowl is the same and they also share the same windshield. Both were built on the same assembly line in the dedicated Wixom plant (now since defunct).

  2. The Imperial’s wraparound windscreen looked so anachronistic by 1966, and so out of kilter with its square-cut body, it’s little wonder that the car struggled.

    A good tale, well told, about the fortunes of these three flagship models. Thanks for sharing it with us, Bruno. I (now) even understand properly the historical reference in the title to your piece!

    1. You’re welcome; glad you enjoyed it. That panoramic windshield does indeed not sit well with the rest of the car- although I fear that even with a normal windshield Imperial would not have succeeded in succesfully competing with Lincoln and Cadillac.

  3. The most notable attribute of the ’57-’66 Imperial was its tendency to get banned from demolition derbies for being too much of a threat to the other, more ordinary cars in the competitions. I’ve always wondered if the Lincolns of that era, which, despite their unitized chassis, were also in the 5,000+ pound range, were similarly ostracized, but maybe they were too valuable at the time to have had much of a presence in that business.

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